The successful completion of a major project is shedding new light on one of the Harrogate area's most historic buildings.
The historic St John the Baptist Church in Knaresborough may date from the early Norman days in the reign of Henry I but, thanks to a phenomenal community effort to raise £80,000, it can now boast a revolutionary new 21st century LED lighting system.
One of the main driving forces behind the redevelopment says it has made a remarkable difference to this 12th century building.
Brian Robinson, design and project manager, said: “It’s much more dramatic and theatrical looking now.
“St John’s is a working building. It’s got so much history but it’s remarkably intact and now it’s state of the art. The congregation love it.”
If walls could talk it’s doubtful any other building in the Harrogate district would say more than the magnesium limestone walls of St John’s.
Since it was built in around 1114, it has seen it all and survived to tell the tale – economic hardship, civil war, the Black Death and Scots marauders, even, who ransacked Knaresborough in 1318 and set fire to the church.
The longevity of its history at least partly explains why such influential writers on British architecture as Nikolaus Pevsner and Simon Jenkins have rated St John’s Church so highly in the past in their books.
Standing 18 metres tall at its highest point inside its looming tower, every part of the building, from the knave at one end to the sanctuary 45 metres away at the other, reflects a different time and a different part of local and British history.
The last 1,000 years have seen countless repairs and alterations, enlargements and periodic demolitions.
But little has changed since the 19th century and the building’s last major restoration when the Victorians created the slate roof and removed the public galleries as church attendance went into a steady decline.
Until now. Around four years ago the need to do something about St John’s lighting become pressing.
It’s then new rector, the Rev Garry Hinchcliffe said: “The building was dark, foreboding and sinister, certainly not a space in which people, whether worshippers or visitors, would feel safe or comfortable in.”
Such is St John’s historic and religious significance, how to raise funds to fix the problem wasn’t the only worry.
No progress was possible until the consulting architect at Historic England, the conservation officer at Harrogate Borough Council, the rector and trustees of St John’s itself and, crucially, the Diocesan Advisory Committe all agreed to it.
A member of the church himself, project leader Brian Robinson, admits it was a lengthy process but the nature of St John’s meant it was only right that great care was taken at every step.
He said: “St John’s is a Grade 1 listed building. It’s one of only two per cent of exceptional interest, architecturally, in the UK.
“It took eight months to get permission to get permission to do the inside lights. But it’s been a huge privilege to be involved with the work.”
Not lit like a football stadium
Once final permission had been granted in the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Leeds under the Chancellor the Worshipful Professor Nicholas Mark Hill QC the question remained of what exactly to do about the lighting inside St John’s.
It wasn’t merely a matter of getting better lights.
There may be regular classical music concerts at St John’s, involving the likes of Knaresborough Pro Music and St John’s Choir, not to forget the fantastically popular annual Christmas Tree Festival which attracted more than 6,000 people in ten days just a few weeks ago.
But paramount in everyone’s thinking was that priority should be given to the church as a place of religious worship.
The Rev Garry Hinchcliffe said: “We didn’t want it lit like a football stadium. We wanted to be sympathetic to the church’s history and spirituality.”
Project manager Brian Robinson said: “The lights in the church were constantly failing. Even when the lights were working, it was so dark in the middle of the church people could hardly read the hymn sheets.”
Fundraising began towards the £80,000 cost of the new lighting system three years ago.
The appeal was buoyed by some substantial legacies from wealthy supporters but more modest sums also poured in from ordinary members of the congregation, retired GPs and, even, a bloke from the nearby Mitre Inn pub.
The real work finally got under way at St John’s last August with a hard-working team of contractors and suppliers under the direction of consulting architect David Sheriff of Leeds-based architects, Simmonsherriff LLP.
As befits a church steeped in history whose Slingsby Chapel section contains the remains of a member of local Royalist family the Slingsbys who was beheaded for his pains, respect was the key word.
Brian Robinson said: “The team working on this project were absolutely superb. They went way beyond what they had to do. It was all ultra-precise.”
The Rev Hinchliffe was equally impressed.
“We were very fortunate in our contractors and suppliers who were more than simply employed on the job but gave unstintingly of their time and energy over and above what they were asked. They have become part of our church community.”
Elegance of ancient stone work
The new system is completely LED and wireless, which certainly saves on dangerous climbs up the church tower!
The central remote control panel also allows the church to tailor the lighting to the mood of different occasions.
As a result, the elegance of the ancient stone work inside St John’s is illuminated as never before.
But, despite the modern technology, the project team resisted the temptation to resort to any trickery to create artificial drama.
Brian Robinson said: “Only the ceiling is uplit, not the arches. The lighting is primarily there to draw your eye to the liturgical settings that worship takes place in.”
The future for St John’s not only looks brighter now, it’s also more environmentally-friendly and cheaper.
The previous lighting system was drawing on a whopping 10,000 watts of electricity.
The new one uses just 2,000.
The next step for St John’s is, perhaps, an even bigger task - to deal with the water-logged and failing lighting system which illuminates the exterior of the church.
For the moment, however, its rector is happy with what has been achieved.
The Rev Hinchcliffe said: “The new lights are a witness to Brian’s passion and enthusiasm for the church.The best thing is they maintain the mystery and wonder of the church.”
This article would not have been possible withoutthe help of Brian Robinson and source material from the Church Parish Magazine compiled by the Rev RN Talbot in the 1950s.